Will Linfield issue the final rites to Glentoran's title challenge?
Danske Bank Irish Premiership: Linfield v Glentoran (tonight, 7.45pm, Windsor Park)
THERE are must-win games and then there is tonight’s 'Big Two' clash at Windsor Park. It’s impossible to imagine the stakes being any higher for Glentoran than this showdown.
The Blues lead the way by a point at the top with Cliftonville tucked in behind them, while the Glens are six points off the pace.
Lose and Mick McDermott’s men can kiss goodbye to the league championship. Draw and they’re just about on life support. Win and the title race just got better – if that was at all possible.
Some observers would regard Glentoran as already out of the title race following their shock 4-0 home defeat to Crusaders last weekend.
Battles between leaders Linfield and third-placed Glentoran have always been tribal affairs – that’s why it would be particularly sweet if the Blues took their visitors’ scalp and definitively ended their league assault with a few games remaining while pushing themselves four ahead of nearest rivals Cliftonville.
In a game that will be shown on BBCNI’s iplayer and BBCNI online, the all-ticket affair promises fireworks. In their three previous meetings this season, it’s been 50-50 with one tie finishing all square and each claiming a win over the other.
Linfield, undoubtedly, hold all the aces heading into this fixture. They have better form and have the much better defensive record than Glentoran.
Last weekend, they showed their steely defensive resolve and came away from Solitude with a scoreless draw. Chris Shields was immense against the Reds in the defensive midfield role with little getting past him and chances at a premium for both sides.
Linfield do have game-changers on their bench with Jordan Stewart saving his side’s bacon down at Warrenpoint Town recently and causing Cliftonville some stressful moments last Saturday when he entered the fray.
The ageless Jamie Mulgrew – on the bench against Cliftonville due to a virus before coming on for the injured Stephen Fallon after 10 minutes – also showed his big-game mentality on numerous occasions in stopping Reds attacks and initiating them for the Blues.
Undoubtedly, Glentoran boast heavy firepower with Conor McMenamin and Jay Donnelly hitting a combined 47 goals this season.
But the question mark hanging over the Glens is the perceived distraction their Irish Cup protest is having. The Glens were dumped out of the premier cup competition for playing an ineligible player – Joe Crowe – in their quarter-final win over Newry City.
The Glens continue to plead their case with finalists Crusaders awaiting their opponents. Although these highly charged affairs are always hard to call, David Healy's side look to have the bit between their teeth and look the more solid of the two outfits.
Glentoran, on the other hand, will feel they have nothing to lose and that alone makes for a tricky opponent. But with Shields in superb form and Linfield excellent options from the bench, it's hard to see the south Belfast men cough up this golden opportunity of taking another vital step towards retaining the Gibson Cup.